Tak-pi-tak-pi-tak, the sound of the ti-bwa marks its rhythm on the tambour bèlè. The tanbouyé raps his tambour. A tall, willowy répondée, barefoot and wearing a long, white bohemian dress, begins the melody. Enter headliner Stella Gonis in a jean dress and layered coco wood necklaces, her dreadlocks wrapped into a messy French twist. Strong and steady, Ms. Gonis croons in Creole, her voice generous, rich, and powerful. “Hommage aux chanteuses de Bèlè” at La Maison du Bèlè in Sainte Marie has begun.
Stella Gonis is from Sainte Marie, a Samaritaine. Her contemporary bèlè music is popular in Francophone countries. Accompanied by talented musicians, she receives a warm welcome at this particular venue. She entertains while asserting her views on social issues such as the environment and youth in Martinique. However, some bèlè fundamentalists argue that her style is not bèlè; Ms. Gonis disagrees. She uses elements of traditional bèlè—the tambours, ti-bwa, répondés—to realize personal musical expression.
Bèlè is a type of music and dance that evolved in Martinique through a process of transcultural exchange. The origin of the word bèlè maybe from a creolization of “bel air”—good atmosphere. It is believed that the bèlè dance has its origins in West Africa where it was performed in rites associated with mating and fertility. Men and women showed off their dancing to each other, and tease one another in call and response songs. During slavery in Martinique, bèlè music was played to synchronize collective labour and the dance performed during periods of festivity and bereavement. The songs not only accompanied labour, they also related stories from the island, the community, of personal woes…
Traditional bèlè follows a particular sequence: the singer sings in Creole and is followed the respondents (répondés); the ti-bwa begins the rhythm and is followed by the tambour bèlè; the dancers complete the sequence. The ti-bwa is made of two wooden sticks carved from trees and dried in the sun and is played on the back of the tambour bèlè. The tambour bèlè is an open-bottomed drum with a goatskin head stretched across the top of the drum.
Music and movement as a means of emotional expression transcends language and bèlè is no exception. The latter half of the evening offered traditional bèlè: tambours, ti-bwas, men and women dancing around each other flirtatiously. Despite not understanding the language, I was infected with the spirit of the singers and joy of the dancers. The men’s feet moved with unique gestures and the women created intricate patterns with their skirts. I smiled as they playfully teased each other. I thought of Brazilian capoeira and Cuban rumba—a rhythmic, interactional and free-form style of dance.
Overall, this swaré was an enjoyable Saturday evening with good food and a pleasant atmosphere. If you are in Martinique for any celebration, you will absolutely have the opportunity to see bèlè. If not, listen to Ti Emile—one of the best bèlè singers of all time.